Bans for athletes given by governing bodies have come under scrutiny whilst games and events are not going ahead.  The notion of a ban is to discipline an athlete for wrongdoing and often these bans are for a certain amount of time, rather than using the number of games or events to be missed.  Giving a ban to an athlete using a time frame will mean they may not actually miss much in terms of games and events, which raises questions as to the deterrent effect.  However, you can’t help but feel for governing bodies who appear to be in a no-win situation on this topic.

In a footballing context, let’s take the case of Daniel Sturridge.  Sturridge was banned from football for four months from the beginning of March this year for sharing information with his brother regarding a potential transfer to Sevilla in 2018.  When the ban was issued, it was possible that Sturridge would miss 14 games for Turkish side Trabzonspor, including a league win and a cup final.  It was also one of the longest bans ordered by the FA since the Premier League began.  Now, with football in Turkey being suspended, Sturridge will miss four games.

In rugby, Joe Marler received a 10-week ban on 12 March 2020 for infamously grabbing Alun Wyn Jones’ genitals in England’s 33-30 victory over Wales in the Six Nations.  At the time, each week of the ban was set to feature a fixture Marler would have missed, but none of these have taken place and so he will not miss any matches during the ban.  The disciplinary panel that delivered the ban did not want to alter it to ensure consistency for players facing bans during unprecedented times. 

Looking at athletics and the Olympics, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a sort of ‘loophole’ for athletes that were set to miss this year’s Olympics in Tokyo.  Athletes serving their bans which expire this year are now able to qualify for the postponed Olympic Games in 2021.

Bans for doping that are delivered by WADA have been designed in a way to prevent athletes from competing and being able to qualify for the next Olympic Games.  However, with the Games being postponed by a year, this designation no longer works and the Athletic Integrity Unit (AIU) have indicated hesitance in extending existing bans so that they cover next year’s Games.  The AIU, understandably, are concerned about legal disputes arising by preventing athletes from competing for an additional year.  As the bans are linked to a time frame and not certain events, the legal framework does not allow for an extension.  Perhaps quite rightly so?

The flipside is that athletes who receive a ban before next summer will end up missing two Olympic Games, which will fall within the next four-year cycle.  It will be interesting to see how the legal implications of this develop, as athletes will undoubtedly feel hard done-by if they miss two Olympic Games, which does appear an unpalatable consequence.  Especially when others who received the same ban for the same offence four years ago will not miss an Olympic Games.  

WADA has already published its new 2021 World Anti-Doping Code and International Standards, coming into force in January 2021, so these issues will not be dealt with and codified for the foreseeable future.  Could we see unprecedented amendments between now and January 2021 – only time will tell.

What is clear is that there is no easy answer to this problem, as with many of the problems that are being faced by governing bodies in the Covid-19 climate.  We haven’t even begun to explore the effects on the athletes, their training and mental health.

Having never been in this position before, it is understandable that some allowances need to be made but at the same time, achieving balance and ensuring that justice for conduct contrary to rules and regulations is upheld.

We will be looking at this issue closely in the coming weeks’ as part of ‘The Score’ series.  So keep your eyes (and ears!) peeled for a podcast, in which we will look at some of the issues and potential solutions concerning this topic.